A welcome to readers

As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime:

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sentimental Journey--oh yeah!

Gonna take a Sentimental Journey,
Gonna set my heart at ease.
Gonna make a Sentimental Journey,
to renew old memories.

Liz and I are off tomorrow for a fairly lengthy road trip  (totaling almost 5000 miles) to my "second home" in New England, and then to my first home in Kentucky.  "Sentimental Journey" says it all: will see my children grown up and now raising (beautifully, I might add) kids of their own; several of my old places of employment (schools and my upstate NY feed and grain store); friends and relatives I've not visited in several years (several longer than that); homes that my family and I lived in, enjoyed, and where I damned near crippled myself doing various tasks associated with carpentry, plumbing, and animal husbandry in Madison, CT. and Lake Luzerne, NY.; the home where I grew up (sorta) in Louisville, KY., the 1 acre front yard where I learned that professional sports were not to be my destiny; then there's my basketball court where I decided that Adolph Rupp was not going to recruit me to play at UK;  the primary and secondary schools where I learned that some important-to-me people valued brainpower more than good looks or money; the city parks where I fumblingly learned to smooch; the church I attended and where I began my still unfinished spiritual quest. 

I will visit with my sister who has been my best friend since I was 10 and she was 7 when we  formed a bond  (to survive parental pressure to be perfect) which has lasted more than a half century, and will laugh and joke with her husband, a new friend. 

I will also take a trip to two cemeteries, the first in Pineville, KY, a tiny town in the coal-bearing mountains of Cumberland Gap, where my mother was raised and where her parents, the Stone family, several of mom's seven brothers and sisters, and many of my cousins are buried.  The cemetery, located on the steep side of a south-facing mountain which was once overgrown with buckeye trees, maples, walnuts, ash, poplar, beech, shagbark hickory, flowering dog woods, laurel, azaleas, ginseng, beebalm and sweet birch, is now carefully mowed and, tipping its hat to twentieth century culture, appropriately overlooks a McDonalds at the bottom of the entrance driveway.

The second cemetery is in Louisville, a nationally renown garden masterpiece, beautifully planted with ornamentals, full of expensively carved memorial statuary with grounds maintained like a golf course, populated by living wildlife--ducks and geese and cardinals and jays and a million squirrels-- and featuring the last resting places of such non-living dignitaries as George Rogers Clark and Colonel Harland Sanders (finger lickin' good). Also buried there are three generations of Johnsons including my great grandmother, my grand parents (both named Johnson when they married ), my dad and his three brothers, and several of their spouses.  Just being there walks me through veritable minefield of recollection and memories, many wonderful, some hurtful.

Both cemetery settings remind me of the consequences of being a middle class, Southern W.A.S.P. I shoild have "had it made, right? So Doris Day's song poses an interesting question:   "why did I decide to roam?" I've begun to frame some answers to this question over the years, and will try to refine and clarify my thinking while I'm on my trip.  

So, more later on this topic.

Meanwhile I am looking forward to a car ride through the heartland of agricultural America during the spring planting and birthing season.  Will report  later on what I see, hear, smell, feel and think about all of this. Promises to be sentimental journey for sure!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Part II: "Bernake....Frank's Hot Sauce"...a followup in the NY Times

Just after I wrote the Bernake and Frank's Hot Sauce  Blog, the following article appeared in the NY Times via Yahoo news. Incredible! Read it and weep.

Yahoo! Finance http://finance.yahoo.com/news/In-Financial-Crisis-No-nytimes-220...
In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures
GRETCHEN MORGENSON and LOUISE STORY, On Thursday April 14, 2011, 7:33 am EDT

It is a question asked repeatedly across America: why, in the aftermath of a financial mess that generated hundreds of billions in losses, have no high-profile participants in the disaster been prosecuted?Answering such a question — the equivalent of determining why a dog did not bark — is anything but simple. But a private meeting inmid-October 2008 between Timothy F. Geithner, then-president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Andrew M. Cuomo, New
York’s attorney general at the time, illustrates the complexities of pursuing legal cases in a time of panic.
At the Fed, which oversees the nation’s largest banks, Mr. Geithner worked with the Treasury Department on a large bailout fund for the banksand led efforts to shore up the American International Group, the giant insurer. His focus: stabilizing world financial markets. Mr. Cuomo, as a Wall Street enforcer, had been questioning banks and rating agencies aggressively for more than a year about their roles in thegrowing debacle, and also looking into bonuses at A.I.G.
Friendly since their days in the Clinton administration, the two met in Mr. Cuomo’s office in Lower Manhattan, steps from Wall Street and the New York Fed. According to three people briefed at the time about the meeting, Mr. Geithner expressed concern about the fragility of the
financial system.His worry, according to these people, sprang from a desire to calm markets, a goal that could be complicated by a hard-charging attorney general. Asked whether the unusual meeting had altered his approach, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, now New York’s governor, said Wednesday evening that “Mr. Geithner never suggested that there be any lack of diligence or any slowdown.” Mr. Geithner, now the Treasury secretary, said through a spokesman that he had been focused on A.I.G. “to protect taxpayers.”
Whether prosecutors and regulators have been aggressive enough in pursuing wrongdoing is likely to long be a subject of debate. All say theyhave done the best they could under difficult circumstances.
But several years after the financial crisis, which was caused in large part by reckless lending and excessive risk taking by major financialinstitutions, no senior executives have been charged or imprisoned, and a collective government effort has not emerged. This stands in starkcontrast to the failure of many savings and loan institutions in the late 1980s. In the wake of that debacle, special government task forces referred 1,100 cases to prosecutors, resulting in more than 800 bank officials going to jail. Among the best-known: Charles H. Keating Jr., of Lincoln Savings and Loan in Arizona, and David Paul, of Centrust Bank in Florida. Former prosecutors, lawyers, bankers and mortgage employees say that investigators and regulators ignored past lessons about how to crack
financial fraud.
As the crisis was starting to deepen in the spring of 2008, the Federal Bureau of Investigation scaled back a plan to assign more field agents to investigate mortgage fraud. That summer, the Justice Department also rejected calls to create a task force devoted to mortgage-related
investigations, leaving these complex cases understaffed and poorly funded, and only much later established a more general financial crimes task force. Leading up to the financial crisis, many officials said in interviews, regulators failed in their crucial duty to compile the information that
traditionally has helped build criminal cases. In effect, the same dynamic that helped enable the crisis — weak regulation — also made it harder to pursue fraud in its aftermath. A more aggressive mind-set could have spurred far more prosecutions this time, officials involved in the S.&L. cleanup said.
“This is not some evil conspiracy of two guys sitting in a room saying we should let people create crony capitalism and steal with impunity,”professor of law at University of Missouri, Kansas City, and the federal government’s director of litigation during the savings and loan crisis. “But their policies have created an exceptional criminogenic environment. There were no criminal referrals from the
regulators. No fraud working groups. No national task force. There has been no effective punishment of the elites here.”
Even civil actions by the government have been limited. The Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a broad guideline in 2009 —distributed within the agency but never made public — to be cautious about pushing for hefty penalties from banks that had received bailoutmoney. The agency was concerned about taxpayer money in effect being used to pay for settlements, according to four people briefed on the policy but who were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
To be sure, Wall Street’s role in the crisis is complex, and cases related to mortgage securities are immensely technical. Criminal intent in particular is difficult to prove, and banks defend their actions with documents they say show they operated properly. But legal experts point to numerous questionable activities where criminal probes might have borne fruit and possibly still could.
Investigators, they argue, could look more deeply at the failure of executives to fully disclose the scope of the risks on their books during the mortgage mania, or the amounts of questionable loans they bundled into securities sold to investors that soured.
Prosecutors also could pursue evidence that executives knowingly awarded bonuses to themselves and colleagues based on overly optimistic valuations of mortgage assets — in effect, creating illusory profits that were wiped out by subsequent losses on the same assets. And they might
also investigate whether executives cashed in shares based on inside information, or misled regulators and their own boards about looming problems. Merrill Lynch, for example, understated its risky mortgage holdings by hundreds of billions of dollars. And public comments made by Angelo R. Mozilo, the chief executive of Countrywide Financial, praising his mortgage company’s practices were at odds with derisive statements he made privately in e-mails as he sold shares; the stock subsequently fell sharply as the company’s losses became known.
Executives at Lehman Brothers assured investors in the summer of 2008 that the company’s financial position was sound, even though they appeared to have counted as assets certain holdings pledged by Lehman to other companies, according to a person briefed on that case. At Bear Stearns, the first major Wall Street player to collapse, a private litigant says evidence shows that the firm’s executives may have pocketed revenues that should have gone to investors to offset losses when complex mortgage securities soured.
But the Justice Department has decided not to pursue some of these matters — including possible criminal cases against Mr. Mozilo of Countrywide and Joseph J. Cassano, head of Financial Products at A.I.G., the business at the epicenter of that company’s collapse. Mr. Cassano’s lawyers said that documents they had given to prosecutors refuted accusations that he had misled investors or the company’s board. Mr. Mozilo’s lawyers have said he denies any wrongdoing.Among the few exceptions so far in civil action against senior bankers is a lawsuit filed last month against top executives of Washington Mutual, the failed bank now owned by JPMorgan Chase. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation sued Kerry K. Killinger, the company’s former chief executive, and two other officials, accusing them of piling on risky loans to grow faster and increase their compensation. The S.E.C. also extracted a $550 million settlement from Goldman Sachs for a mortgage security the bank built, though the S.E.C. did not name executives in that case. Representatives at the Justice Department and the S.E.C. say they are still pursuing financial crisis cases, but legal experts warn that they become more difficult as time passes. “If you look at the last couple of years and say, ‘This is the big-ticket prosecution that came out of the crisis,’ you realize we haven’t gotten
very much,” said David A. Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s consistent with what many people were worried about during the crisis, that different rules would be applied to different players. It goes to the whole perception that Wall Street was taken care of,and Main Street was not.”The Countrywide Puzzle
As nonprosecutions go, perhaps none is more puzzling to legal experts than the case of Countrywide, the nation’s largest mortgage lender. Last month, the office of the United States attorney for Los Angeles dropped its investigation of Mr. Mozilo after the S.E.C. extracted a settlement
from him in a civil fraud case. Mr. Mozilo paid $22.5 million in penalties, without admitting or denying the accusations. White-collar crime lawyers contend that Countrywide exemplifies the difficulties of mounting a criminal case without assistance and documentation from regulators — the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Fed, in Countrywide’s case.
“When regulators don’t believe in regulation and don’t get what is going on at the companies they oversee, there can be no major white-collar crime prosecutions,” said Henry N. Pontell, professor of criminology, law and society in the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine. “If they don’t understand what we call collective embezzlement, where people are literally looting their own firms, then it’s impossible to bring cases.”Financial crisis cases can be brought by many parties. Since the big banks’ mortgage machinery involved loans on properties across the country, attorneys general in most states have broad criminal authority over most of these institutions. The Justice Department can bring civil or criminal cases, while the S.E.C. can file only civil lawsuits. All of these enforcement agencies traditionally depend heavily on referrals from bank regulators, who are more savvy on complex financial matters.
But data supplied by the Justice Department and compiled by a group at Syracuse University show that over the last decade, regulators havereferred substantially fewer cases to criminal investigators than previously. The university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse indicates that in 1995, bank regulators referred 1,837 cases to the Justice Department. In 2006, that number had fallen to 75. In the four subsequent years, a period encompassing the worst of the crisis, an average ofonly 72 a year have been referred for criminal prosecution.Law enforcement officials say financial case referrals began declining under President Clinton as his administration shifted its focus to healthcare fraud. The trend continued in the Bush administration, except for a spike in prosecutions for Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and others for accounting fraud. The Office of Thrift Supervision was in a particularly good position to help guide possible prosecutions. From the summer of 2007 to the end of 2008, O.T.S.-overseen banks with $355 billion in assets failed.The thrift supervisor, however, has not referred a single case to the Justice Department since 2000, the Syracuse data show. The Office of theComptroller of the Currency, a unit of the Treasury Department, has referred only three in the last decade.The comptroller’s office declined to comment on its referrals. But a spokesman, Kevin Mukri, noted that bank regulators can and do bring theirown civil enforcement actions. But most are against small banks and do not involve the stiff penalties that accompany criminal charges. Historically, Countrywide’s bank subsidiary was overseen by the comptroller, while the Federal Reserve supervised its home loans unit. But in March 2007, Countrywide switched oversight of both units to the thrift supervisor. That agency was overseen at the time by John M. Reich, a former banker and Senate staff member appointed in 2005 by President George W. Bush. Robert Gnaizda, former general counsel at the Greenlining Institute, a nonprofit consumer organization in Oakland, Calif., said he had spokenoften with Mr. Reich about Countrywide’s reckless lending. “We saw that people were getting bad loans,” Mr. Gnaizda recalled. “We focused on Countrywide because they were the largest originator in California and they were the ones with the most exotic mortgages.”Mr. Gnaizda suggested many times that the thrift supervisor tighten its oversight of the company, he said. He said he advised Mr. Reich to set up a hot line for whistle-blowers inside Countrywide to communicate with regulators. “I told John, ‘This is what any police chief does if he wants to solve a crime,’ ” Mr. Gnaizda said in an interview. “John was uninterested. He told me he was a good friend of Mozilo’s.”
In an e-mail message, Mr. Reich said he did not recall the conversation with Mr. Gnaizda, and his relationships with the chief executives of banks overseen by his agency were strictly professional. “I met with Mr. Mozilo only a few times, always in a business environment, and anyinsinuation of a personal friendship is simply false,” he wrote. After the crisis had subsided, another opportunity to investigate Countrywide and its executives yielded little. The Financial Crisis Inquiry
Commission, created by Congress to investigate the origins of the disaster, decided not to make an in-depth examination of the company —though some staff members felt strongly that it should.
In a January 2010 memo, Brad Bondi and Martin Biegelman, two assistant directors of the commission, outlined their recommendations for investigative targets and hearings, according to Tom Krebs, another assistant director of the commission. Countrywide and Mr. Mozilo were
specifically named; the memo noted that subprime mortgage executives like Mr. Mozilo received hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation even though their companies collapsed.
However, the two soon received a startling message: Countrywide was off limits. In a staff meeting, deputies to Phil Angelides, the commission’s chairman, said he had told them Countrywide should not be a target or featured at any hearing, said Mr. Krebs, who said he was briefed on that meeting by Mr. Bondi and Mr. Biegelman shortly after it occurred. His account has been confirmed by two other people with direct knowledge of the situation.Mr. Angelides denied that he had said Countrywide or Mr. Mozilo were off limits. Chris Seefer, the F.C.I.C. official responsible for the Countrywide investigation, also said Countrywide had not been given a pass. Mr. Angelides said a full investigation was done on the company, including 40 interviews, and that a hearing was planned for the fall of 2010 to feature Mr. Mozilo. It was canceled because Republican members of the commission did not want any more hearings, he said. “It got as full a scrub as A.I.G., Citi, anyone,” Mr. Angelides said of Countrywide. “If you look at the report, it’s extraordinarily
An F.B.I. Investigation Fizzles
The Justice Department in Washington was abuzz in the spring of 2008. Bear Stearns had collapsed, and some law enforcement insiders weresuggesting an in-depth search for fraud throughout the mortgage pipeline. The F.B.I. had expressed concerns about mortgage improprieties as early as 2004. But it was not until four years later that its officialsrecommended closing several investigative programs to free agents for financial fraud cases, according to two people briefed on a study by the
bureau. The study identified about two dozen regions where mortgage fraud was believed rampant, and the bureau’s criminal division created a plan toinvestigate major banks and lenders. Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the F.B.I., approved the plan, which was described in a memo sent in
spring 2008 to the bureau’s field offices.
“We were focused on the whole gamut: the individuals, the mortgage brokers and the top of the industry,” said Kenneth W. Kaiser, the formerassistant director of the criminal investigations unit. “We were looking at the corporate level.” Days after the memo was sent, however, prosecutors at some Justice Department offices began to complain that shifting agents to mortgage
cases would hurt other investigations, he recalled. “We got told by the D.O.J. not to shift those resources,” he said. About a week later, he said,he was told to send another memo undoing many of the changes. Some of the extra agents were not deployed. A spokesman for the F.B.I., Michael Kortan, said that a second memo was sent out that allowed field offices to try to opt out of some of the
changes in the first memo. Mr. Kaiser’s account of pushback from the Justice Department was confirmed by two other people who were at theF.B.I.in 2008. Around the same time, the Justice Department also considered setting up a financial fraud task force specifically to scrutinize the mortgage industry. Such task forces had been crucial to winning cases against Enron executives and those who looted savings and loans in the early1990s. Michael B. Mukasey, a former federal judge in New York who had been the head of the Justice Department less than a year when Bear Stearns
fell, discussed the matter with deputies, three people briefed on the talks said. He decided against a task force and announced his decision inJune 2008. Last year, officials of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission interviewed Mr. Mukasey. Asked if he was aware of requests for more resources
to be dedicated to mortgage fraud, Mr. Mukasey said he did not recall internal requests.
A spokesman for Mr. Mukasey, who is now at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton in New York, said he would not comment beyond his F.C.I.C. testimony. He had no knowledge of the F.B.I. memo, his spokesman added. A year later — with precious time lost — several lawmakers decided that the government needed more people tracking financial crimes.
Congress passed a bill, providing a $165 million budget increase to the F.B.I. and Justice Department for investigations in this area. But when lawmakers got around to allocating the budget, only about $30 million in new money was provided. Subsequently, in late 2009, the Justice Department announced a task force to focus broadly on financial crimes. But it received no additional resources.

 A Break for 8 Banks
In July 2008, the staff of the S.E.C. received a phone call from Scott G. Alvarez, general counsel at the Federal Reserve in Washington. The purpose: to discuss an S.E.C. investigation into improprieties by several of the nation’s largest brokerage firms. Their actions had hammered thousands of investors holding the short-term investments known as auction-rate securities. These investments carry interest rates that reset regularly, usually weekly, in auctions overseen by the brokerage firms that sell them. They were popular among investors because the interest rates they received were slightly higher than what they could earn elsewhere. For years, companies like UBS and Goldman Sachs operated auctions of these securities, promoting them as highly liquid investments. But by mid-February 2008, as the subprime mortgage crisis began to spread, investors holding hundreds of billions of dollars of these securities could no longer cash them in. As the S.E.C. investigated these events, several of its officials argued that the banks should make all investors whole on the securities, according to three people with knowledge of the negotiations but who were not authorized to speak publicly, because banks had marketed them as safe investments. But Mr. Alvarez suggested that the S.E.C. soften the proposed terms of the auction-rate settlements. His staff followed up with more calls to the S.E.C., cautioning that banks might run short on capital if they had to pay the many billions of dollars needed to make all auction-rate clients whole, the people briefed on the conversations said. The S.E.C. wound up requiring eight banks to pay back only individual investors. For institutional investors — like pension funds — that bought the securities, the S.E.C. told the banks to make only their “best efforts.” This shift eased the pain significantly at some of the nation’s biggest banks. For Citigroup, the new terms meant it had to redeem $7 billion in the securities for individual investors — but it was off the hook for about $12 billion owned by institutions. These institutions havesubsequently recouped some but not all of their investments. Mr. Alvarez declined to comment, through a spokeswoman. An S.E.C. spokesman said: “The primary consideration was remedying the alleged wrongdoing and in fashioning that remedy, the emphasis was placed on retail investors because they were suffering the greatest hardship and had the fewest avenues for redress.” A similar caution emerged in other civil cases after the bank bailouts in the autumn of 2008. The S.E.C.’s investigations of financial institutions began to be questioned by its staff and the agency’s commissioners, who worried that the settlements might be paid using federal bailout money.
Four people briefed on the discussions, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said that in early 2009, the S.E.C. created a broad policy involving settlements with companies that had received taxpayer assistance. In discussions with the Treasury Department, the agency’s division of enforcement devised a guideline stating that the financial health of those banks should be taken into account when the agency negotiated settlements with them. “This wasn’t a political thing so much as, ‘We don’t know if it makes sense to bring a big penalty against a bank that just got a check from the government,’ ” said one of the people briefed on the discussions.
The people briefed on the S.E.C.’s settlement policy said that, while it did not directly affect many settlements, it slowed down the investigativework on other cases. A spokesman for the S.E.C. declined to comment.

Attorney General Moves On

The final chapter still hasn’t been written about the financial crisis and its aftermath. One thing has been especially challenging for regulatorsand law enforcement officials: balancing concerns for the state of the financial system even as they pursued immensely complicated cases. The conundrum was especially clear back in the fall of 2008 when Mr. Geithner visited Mr. Cuomo and discussed A.I.G. Asked for detailsabout the meeting, a spokesman for Mr. Geithner said: “As A.I.G.’s largest creditor, the New York Federal Reserve installed new managementat A.I.G. in the fall of 2008 and directed the new C.E.O. to take steps to end wasteful spending by the company in order to protect taxpayers.”
Mr. Cuomo’s office said, “The attorney general went on to lead the most aggressive investigation of A.I.G. and other financial institutions in thenation.” After that meeting, and until he left to become governor, Mr. Cuomo focused on the financial crisis, with mixed success. In late 2010, Mr. Cuomo sued the accounting firm Ernst & Young, accusing it of helping its client Lehman Brothers “engage in massive accounting fraud.” To date, however, no arm of government has sued Lehman or any of its executives on the same accounting tactic.
Other targets have also avoided legal action. Mr. Cuomo investigated the 2008 bonuses that were paid out by giant banks just after the bailout and he considered bringing a case to try to claw back some of that money, two people familiar with the matter said. But ultimately he chose to publicly shame the companies by releasing their bonus figures.
Mr. Cuomo took a tough stance on Bank of America. While the S.E.C. settled its case with Bank of America without charging any executives with wrongdoing, Mr. Cuomo filed a civil fraud lawsuit against Kenneth D. Lewis, the former chief executive, and the bank’s former chief financial officer. The suit accuses them of understating the losses of Merrill Lynch to shareholders before the deal was approved; the case is stillpending.
Last spring, Mr. Cuomo issued new mortgage-related subpoenas to eight large banks. He was interested in whether the banks had misled the ratings agencies about the quality of the loans they were bundling and asked how many workers they had hired from the ratings agencies. But Mr. Cuomo did not bring a case on this matter before leaving office.

It ain't finger-lickin' good...just yet!

Last weekend Liz and I rented a video: Food, Inc., which we watched (thankfully) after we ate. This is a documentary film about America's food industry and how the supply and choices of food are currently controlled by a relatively small handful of multi-national corporations such as Cargill, Perdue, Tyson, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Kellog, General Mills, Smithfield Foods, McDonald's, Monsanto Chemical, and others.

We discovered that the romantic family farm of yesteryear is gone, supplanted now by industrially-owned and operated food production facilities which resemble Ford assembly lines more than anything formerly  related to agriculture as the world once knew it. Today the focus of "farming" is on increasing output at the expense of virtually all other considerations, e.g., animal husbandry, soil preservation, the taste and nutritional excellence of food, environmental damage and the like. In short, the objective of food production (a/k/a/farming), reduced to its naked truth, is using animals and the land to generate profit--period. All other concerns--health, nutrition, environment, treatment of livestock, etc.-- become secondary to the main goal: maximum dollar return to the stockholders and secure positions for management.

As suggested in the title to this blog, there is a nexus of "Food, Inc." with what we discovered earlier as the driving forces behind our current "Great Recession," namely the overlap between those people who are in charge of an industry's operations and those who are hired by the government to make sure that its rules are followed and standards met. In the case of food production and regulations, we see once again that agriculture folks move back and forth from the production side to the regulatory side with ease and apparent lack of conscience. Once again, the proverbial fox is in charge of guarding the hen house. Once again, the "little" people, the unsuspecting and trusting  public, the consumers (literally eaters) of American farm products (genetically modified and chemically altered and appealingly packaged) are falling victim to the avarice of corporate agriculture as it exercises its self-interest without hesitation, second thought or apology.

Take heart, do not despair ultimately. The video does present a remedy of sorts which we, as consumers, can put into play. It begins here. Industry will not create products unless there is consumer demand. Consumer demand can change the way  agri-business acts--at least to some degree. For example, in the movie we hear that Walmart was pressured by its customers (consumers) to demand from its suppliers a larger selection of food which is organically produced in a healthy environment. As a result of this consumer pressure Walmart stores now has an extensive organic, farm-fresh section.

If we consumers continue to make our preferences known by the way we spend our money in the supermarkets, then the industry which owns the markets and their suppliers will, over time, bend to consumer demand. This strategy is particularly effective these days because grocery chains have computer records of what we (individually) purchase, and daily inventory records of what is selling and what is not. Our stores will not continue to purchase products from their suppliers that are slow or non-sellers. Suppliers will turn to the food producers, farmers if you will, and demand product which aligns more closely with the standards that consumers demand.

Therefore, it is possible to make the profit motive work in our favor for a change. Unfortunately, this will come with several costs. Since organic and natural foods cost more to produce and get to the consumer, the prices we pay will be somewhat higher than we would pay for mass produced or assembly line  products. But, it also means that many lower income folks will probably continue to rely on the less expensive and more convenient foods offered to them in their neighborhood stores without much regard for the quality of the food, namely considerations taking into account nutritional quality, health benefits, and ethical considerations such as degredation of land and environment, and the abusive treatment of livestock in the food chain.

It's hard for me, the consummate supermarket shopper, to buy both healthy and thrifty, but I'm going to try. Maybe my data in the Kroger computer will prove to be a tipping point which changes the whole system of what's available for me and others to buy and eat.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Silver screen stunners and stumblers

Just spent an interesting weekend viewing both a big-screen theater production and several videos. The initial  offering was "Jane Eyre" which was playing at a very local arts theater.  You know the type: low, saggy seats, lighting before the movie turned down so low that you can't see to find a place to sit, endless previews with ultra loud soundtracks (mostly in foreign languages), and a full contingent of Seniors looking for diversion, quiet, and a smattering of culture at bargain prices.

We chose the late afternoon showing which was probably a mistake since I was already hungry and the staff had just cranked out a new load of butter-drenched popcorn loaded with salt.  The enticing scent of that popcorn and butter permeated both the theater and waiting area, but being mostly dietarily compliant,  my partner and I  dutifully took our places, empty handed except for our smuggled-in bottle water.

The main feature was "Jane Eyre,"  remembered by most of us as a high school reading assignment nightmare.  At least that's my memory of my adolescent response to the weighty novel when it was assigned in the 11th or 12th grade. However, that was before I had visited Bronte Country in person a decade ago and breathed the smoky air from coal and peat fires,  luxuriated in the glorious vistas of the West Yorkshire Pennines,  and basked in the mists and filtered light of the rustic Borders' farms and pastures.

The movie's greatest strength for me was the care with which the photography was done, the precision of each scene or shot, and the inspired selection of locations where this very romantic story was filmed.  The muted colors of the landscape and the creation of a really moist and somber Yorkshire atmosphere lent strong support to a story line which, on its face, felt to me (as a 2011 male) also to be somewhat damp, soft and limp.

The film is visually a marvel and, in that one regard at least, wonderful to watch. Judi Dench is at her best as Mrs. Fairfax, the Housekeeper of the estate of Lord Edward Rochester (played by Michael Fassbender whom I may or may not remember in "Inglourious Basterds").  Jane Eyre, cleverly and appropriately type cast, was played by Mia Wasikowska  (who?) with understated elegance. The plot moves as slowly as a Scottish burn inching its way through an upland moor. There's not much action, adventure or excitement for those who crave it, but there's plenty of harsh and cruel psychological and emotional episodes. The film is more subtle than brash, more tender and about matters of the heart than about derring-do.  For these reasons, my guess is that most women will appreciate this movie more than most men (not a sexist comment).

Unfortunately, the film is auditorily  a problem for those of us who have hearing issues (even with aids) because of the Yorkshire accents and conversations which are often sotto voce, i.e., muted and private. Because I missed hearing more than half of the dialogue, I enjoyed this picture much less than my partner did (her hearing is fine, often too good). Consequently, for me the film was--overall--a stumbler. All things being equal, I would have rather seen the movie in high school than read the book; today, however, turning pages seems infinitely preferable.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bernake, derivatives, and credit swaps, eaten with Frank's Famous Hot Sauce

Several nights ago, Liz and I watched a current movie rented from Netflix. We've seen lots of films in the past five years (usually over a jointly prepared dinner) in part because I have always been a movie buff, but also because Liz missed lots of movies during her early married life which was spent in the Middle East and Africa. So I have taken on the pleasant duty of helping her "catch" up with films she missed. At the same time, of course, I relish the opportunity to revisit and relive some fabulous visual experiences for a second or third time, and do so while enjoying our jointly prepared gourmet meal (last night, for a different movie,  it was Feisty Charleston Shrimp over cheese grits liberally doused with Frank's Hot Sauce--way better than Tabasco).

So, on Friday night, appropriately the first of April, we chose to watch Inside Job, a current documentary film which won lots of awards, including the coveted Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences . This film detailed the causes and course of the economic crisis (some call it the Great Recession) of the past several years. We found the presentation to be straight forward, intelligent, minimally biased, and carefully researched, and we left the viewing with a better understanding of this cataclysmic series of interrelated economic events which negatively touched the lives of literally billions of people around the world while destroying the dreams and livelihoods of millions more. The film makes no pretense of being objective; the methodology is that of investigative reporting.

I emerged from the experience more frustrated, pissed off, and viscerally angry that I have been in years. Inside Job, the movie's title, set the stage. The movie related how a relatively small number of current and former Wall Street insiders were so motivated by personal financial greed that they risked overturning the world's economic structure and stability in order to reap monumental personal gains from both institutional profits and losses. In addition, these people received salaries and perks that were so huge that we ordinary mortals were simply unable to believe that the amounts could be true or real (e.g., a CEO heading a firm that is losing money gets fired and then is given a compensation of $25 million for his agreement not to sue...and as a "reward" for his failing efforts. This is not a world with which I am personally familiar.)

Indeed, if we go back and look at the dollar totals of bonuses, Golden Parachutes, salaries and total compensation of those who managed and directed the economy during the past 5 years, the figures of their yearly incomes was reported publicly in the press in 7, 8, and 9 figures. As a fairly "typical" American economic producer and consumer,  I have become accustomed to hearing about relatives, colleagues and friends making yearly salaries in the $100,000-200,000 range,  figures which are genuinely mind-blowing.

To make matters worse for the nation and world, many of the people who were so incredibly enriched by the shenanigans of the corporate "players" that they often abetted the larceny and deception for their own gain were also those who were charged with the responsibility of enforcing governmental regulations and the law. Not surprisingly, we learned that many of the decision-makers, regulation-enforcers and captains of industry were mostly drawn from the same talent pool.  They had gone to school with each other, vacationed together, worked previously with each other, employed each other, etc. They often moved from one firm to another and from one economic domain to another, or from private sector to public and back. Look, for example, at the histories of our current Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, our recent Federal Reserve Chairs,  of Larry Summers, and the executives of many of the major trading, banking and insurance houses in the world.

Even after the incredible economic damage became known by the public, the same folks who were major players in causing the economy to crash were still allowed/encouraged/chosen to be directly in charge of our nation's economic regulatory and policy-making machinery. Many were elevated to top executive positions in corporate America; others into the financial arms of the government. As for the "rule of law" which is allegedly still in effect in our country, there has been virtually no criminal prosecution of those individuals or firms who repeatedly and knowingly broke the laws which led to this economic debacle.  Mr. Fox was clearly in charge of the hen house, and he appears to be there still. My conclusion is that so many people, including our elected officials, have fallen victim to the temptations of power, greed,  and the doctrine of "more is better at whatever cost," that American democracy would be better called American plutocracy. Corporations and money interests are now in charge of government. Cupidity and avarice are right up there with "purple mountains majesty."
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For those who are interested in history, the Supreme Court Decisions that ruled that corporations were to be understood legally as "people" set the stage for the demise of political democracy as once envisioned by the Founders and practiced by most Americans until the late 1800's: The first case granting personhood to corporations was Dartmouth College v Woodward (1819), but the principle was blatantly driven home in the 1886 Supreme Court decision granting corporations the same rights as living persons under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Quoting from David Korten's The Post-Corporate World, Life After Capitalism (pp.185-6):

          In 1886, . . . in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a private corporation is a person and entitled to the legal rights and protections the Constitutions affords to any person. Because the Constitution makes no mention of corporations, it is a fairly clear case of the Court's taking it upon itself to rewrite the Constitution.
          Far more remarkable, however, is that the doctrine of corporate personhood, which subsequently became a cornerstone of corporate law, was introduced into this 1886 decision without argument. According to the official case record, Supreme Court Justice Morrison Remick Waite simply pronounced before the beginning of arguement in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company that
          The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does.
          The court reporter duly entered into the summary record of the Court's findings that
          The defendant Corporations are persons within the intent of the clause in section 1 of the Fourteen Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
          Thus it was that a two-sentence assertion by a single judge elevated corporations to the status of persons under the law, prepared the way for the rise of global corporate rule, and thereby changed the course of history.

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If after reading this blog, you still want to watch the movie Inside Job, drop me a line and I'll send you the recipe for the Feisty Charleston Shrimp with grits and Frank's Hot Sauce so that you can get totally "burned up" in one gut-inflaming multi-media experience.